Darkwood is a unique game with a relatively long development history. Developed by a small Polish indie studio called Acid Wizard, the game was available on Steam as an Early Access title as far back as 2014, and it was only officially released in August 2017. Naturally, it has gone through some significant gameplay changes over the years, and after all the patches and fixes, it feels like a radically different game now compared to what it was at its inception.
Without beating around the bush, I’ll immediately say that Darkwood is easily one of the best games I have ever played, and I don’t make such statements lightly. In this review, I’ll explain exactly why.
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Darkwood kicks off with a brief intro sequence, putting the player in the shoes of the Doctor, a character who will later play an important part in the story. We find out that an unknown disease is ravaging the forest, the trees are growing unnaturally fast and are blocking all the roads to the outside world, and the good Doctor hasn’t exactly been upholding the Hippocratic Oath. Soon enough, he ends up in a clearing where he encounters a wounded man who happens to have a key that the Doctor believes unlocks a way out of the woods.
The disfigured mute man is then held captive and is brutally beaten by the Doctor who is dead-set on figuring out where the door that the key unlocks is located. Then, the perspective switches, and the player assumes control of the captive man who is the true protagonist of the game and is only referred to simply as “The Protagonist” or “The Stranger”.
The player breaks free, the doctor disappears, and the Stranger is seemingly killed by a pack of monsters that swarm the Doctor’s house. However, he is saved by another mysterious figure known as the Trader, and wakes up in the first hideout. This is where the real game begins.
The intro doesn’t give you much to go on and only sets a basic premise – we know virtually nothing about the Stranger, the Doctor, or the Trader. That said, the story of Darkwood is cryptic and layered, relying a lot on the player’s ability to deduce certain plot points from the environment and from subtle cues and hints presented in the dialogues – or rather, monologues, as the Stranger is unable to speak for an unexplained reason.
The woods are filled with highly memorable and unique characters, all of them odd and disturbing in their own fashion. Early on, the player will encounter the Trader, who is also unable to speak and has mushrooms growing all over his body, the menacing and sadistic Wolfman, along with many others, all of them presented up close in conversation screens through beautiful art that is presented either in black and white or with very little color, reflecting the bleak and melancholic hopelessness of the game’s world.
The player’s ultimate goal is to reclaim his key from the Doctor and escape the woods, but the journey isn’t all that linear. There are different ways to progress forward, there are some moral decisions involved, and there are plenty of interesting side quests that really ought to be explored. In any case, Darkwood is highly evocative and atmospheric, and it is a game that requires patience and attention from those who want to truly take it in and understand it.
In the end, without delving into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that the game is very open to interpretation, and there is no be-all-end-all solution to all of the game’s riddles. Is it all just a dream? Is it a drug-induced nightmare? PTSD? The afterlife? Incomprehensible Lovecraftian forces? Is it just a dark, dark fairy tale? It’s all up to the player to decide how they want to interpret the story, and virtually any answer is as good as the next one.
It’s tricky describing the gameplay experience of Darkwood using only the familiar genre tags that we’re all used to. Perhaps it is most accurately described as a “top-down survival horror game”.
First and foremost, Darkwood is amazing at making the player feel vulnerable. The protagonist i.e. The Stranger, has a limited cone of vision, and visibility isn’t that great in many parts of the map even during the day, so the player has to rely on their sense of hearing in order to detect unseen threats in the dark interiors and dense thickets that make up most of Darkwood’s environments.
On top of that, the Stranger’s health and stamina reserves are fairly limited. There is only so much room for error when it comes to health and stamina management, and in this regard, the game definitely echoes Dark Souls to a degree (cue the “Dark Souls of indie horror games” jokes). Most enemies can whittle your health down in a matter of seconds, and if you’re not carefully aiming and timing your counterattacks, you’ll quickly find yourself with insufficient stamina to fight back or escape.
Speaking of fighting, the player will be able to get their hands on a number of weapons throughout the game. This includes melee weapons, thrown weapons, and firearms that become more abundantly available towards the final chapter of the game. In addition to that, the player can use several types of traps and certain environment items such as gas tanks and explosive barrels to disable and damage enemies.
The moveset, however, is a bit limited, consisting of two attacks – a slow one with a wind-up that deals more damage and uses up less stamina, as well as a quick one that deals less damage and uses up more stamina. Meanwhile, the only defensive move is a short-distance backward dodge which takes some skill in order to use efficiently in combat against enemies with longer reach. Overall, I feel that the combat in Darkwood works quite well, though it may be a bit clunky and could perhaps use some extra weapons, for variety’s sake.
However, there are some threats in Darkwood that no axe, shotgun, or trap will stop, which is where the hideouts enter the equation. Originally, hideouts were optional in the earlier versions of the game, but the developers have made them indispensable later on. In the final version of Darkwood, hideouts are special buildings, and each of the game’s four zones features one unique hideout. What sets a hideout apart from other buildings found in the game’s world is the fact that it comes with an array of useful utilities, some of which are rarely found outside hideouts:
- A workbench, used for creating new weapons and items, repairing melee weapons, as well as for storing items.
- A buzz saw, which allows the player to turn wooden logs into planks which are then used to create barricades and craft certain items.
- A generator, which provides the hideout with power, granting much-needed visibility at night and helps with warding off one specific type of enemy that the player might encounter.
- A well, which allows the player to regenerate health once a day by drinking water from it.
- A stove, which the player uses to extract “Essence” from mushrooms and other items in order to level up and unlock new abilities. Moreover, the stove also spreads a protective gas throughout the hideout, and this is what wards off the greatest danger that prowls the woods at night.
But though it may be the safest place to be at night, the hideout is by no means safe. Almost every night, enemies will be trying to get into the hideout, and it’s up to the player to strategically barricade entries and exits, leaving escape routes open while herding enemies into areas where they’re easier to trap or fight off. Of course, the hideouts get progressively more difficult to defend, and the player will have to deal with enemies which are not only more powerful but also more numerous in the later hideouts.
On top of all that, various unique hideout events can take place at night, from benign and not-so-benign poltergeists to earthquakes and a variety of inexplicable phenomena that could be either beneficial or harmful. Because of this, nights are by no means boring, and are definitely one of the game’s highlights.
While you may be stuck in your hideout during the night, the forest is your oyster during the day – a deadly oyster full of bear traps, poisonous mushrooms, feral dogs, feral people, and an array of colorful nightmare monstrosities. The world is open and ripe for exploration, though some areas might be locked off for story reasons or until certain requirements are met. The map is procedurally-generated to a degree, though all the key locations remain more or less identical from playthrough to playthrough.
Needless to say, exploration is a big part of Darkwood. The world holds many secrets – you can find supplies, weapons, and side quests that can yield worthwhile rewards, though not every rock is worth turning and not every story has a happy ending. Just don’t forget to keep an eye on the time! If you don’t find or buy a watch, you need to keep an eye on the environment in order to figure out when the sun starts setting, as you most definitely don’t want to be stranded far away from your hideout once the night starts falling.
Finally, on the subject of difficulty – Darkwood features three difficulty modes:
- Normal – the “easy” mode where the only penalty for dying is dropping half of your gear at the place where you died. There are no draconian punishments for failure, so this is the best setting for new players who are yet to figure out how the game works.
- Hard – the best difficulty for intermediate players. On Hard, the player has only four lives, so mistakes count.
- Nightmare – perma-death. Only recommended for those who are familiar with the game and are looking for a serious challenge. This is the most exhilarating way to experience the horrors of Darkwood and it is bound to keep even the most hardened veterans on their toes.
With all that said, the difficulty settings only deal with the penalties for dying. Your health, the damage you deal, the damage that enemies deal, and the abundance of resources that can be found in the world remain unaffected.
That would be about it as far as the gameplay is concerned. The game is comprised of daily expeditions into the unknown and nightly defense against some things that you’d probably prefer remained unknown, and both of these are executed marvelously. There’s tons of interesting stuff and contextual storytelling going on, finding valuable supplies is immensely satisfying, and surviving the night – even more so, especially in later hideouts and on higher difficulties.
As I have previously stated, I consider Darkwood to be one of the best games I have ever played, for multiple reasons, mainly the art direction, the presentation, the way that it doesn’t hold the player’s hand, its sheer uniqueness, and the way that higher difficulties allow it to remain exciting even after you’ve gotten familiar with its mechanics, environments, and enemies.
The graphics are simple but effective, the washed-out color palette serving as a great means of evoking that feeling of isolation and desperation that Darkwood focuses so heavily on, and this is complemented by superb sound design that pulls the player in and amplifies the atmosphere to a whole new level – you’ll be twitching at the sound of cracking branches, the phantom steps echoing through the hideout, and you’ll hardly stay indifferent when hearing some of the downright unholy sounds produced by some of the game’s monsters.
Moreover, the main story and the side stories told in Darkwood have a lot of staying power, they deal with some interesting symbolism and clever foreshadowing, which helps the endings of those stories – most of them bittersweet – leave a profound impact.
Now, the only real issue that I have with the game (apart from it not being longer and not having any DLCs, at least not yet) are some relatively minor issues that have to do with pacing and balancing.
Firstly, while the first chapter (the first three areas) do a great job when it comes to making the player feel vulnerable and forcing them to play slowly and carefully, the second chapter (the final area) seems to do the opposite, to a degree. Some of the enemies in the final area feel underwhelmingly weak in combat, despite their awesome designs, and the fact that you can get your hands on an axe and a pump-action shotgun almost at the very beginning of the second chapter doesn’t help the situation.
When put together, powerful new weapons and experience made the second chapter feel a bit too easy, and many players noted that the fourth hideout is noticeably easier to defend than the third one is. That is not to say that the final chapter is easy by any means, it just gets somewhat easier, and I would have preferred if it ramped up the difficulty instead.
Secondly, some players may find the melee combat slow, sluggish, and a bit clunky, though I felt that it was executed reasonably well overall. The game doesn’t tolerate button mashing, and if you’re taking on multiple enemies or a single powerful one at close range, it’s important to be tactful and focused. I already mentioned that the game could use some extra weapons, even if they were only reskins with minor stat adjustments that were there just to provide an extra sense of variety.
And finally, there’s the game’s leveling system which is rather simple – you collect stuff that yields Essence, you cook it, and then you get to pick a new ability across four different tiers, and each tier has you pick two beneficial and one detrimental new ability/perk. While this sounds fine, the progression is rather linear, and some abilities/perks are just not that useful.
At the end of the day, Darkwood is a remarkable game that pretty much has everything that you’d expect from an indie title. It knows what it wants to do, and it does it exceptionally well. It manages to be scary without ever resorting to cheap jumpscares, it keeps you tense throughout the entire game, and it tells a unique story that feels like a tragically beautiful and grim fairytale. It’s difficult to compare it to other games, but it definitely has vibes reminiscent of the likes of Don’t Starve, Dark Souls, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
However, if you’re not the kind of person who likes to sit down and get pulled into a game for hours on end, paying attention to its enigmatic story and getting immersed in the atmosphere, or if you just don’t like the whole “scavenge, craft, survive” gameplay model, then it’s probably not for you.
Darkwood is available on an array of platforms. You can play it on Windows, Ubuntu, macOS, and if you prefer consoles, it’s also available on the PS4, the Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.
- Top-notch art direction
- Excellent sound design
- Subtle and captivating story
- Tense, risky, and rewarding combat
- Some players may find melee combat clunky
- Could use a few more melee weapons
- The leveling system could be better
- The final area feels easier than it should be
- Overall - 9.2/109.2/10
Darkwood is by no means a perfect game, but given the resources that Acid Wizard had to work with and considering all the time and effort that went into its development, I can’t really treat the game’s technical shortcomings as a big minus – especially when it does everything else so well and sticks out from other survival horror titles.